Bi Life Sketch
I can’t draw. I mean I can’t draw so that it looks like a photograph – which is what I learnt drawing was meant to be all about in school art classes. But later I got into embroidery and started going to some arty and crafty evening classes when I needed something to get me out of the house. They helped me realise that if you really want something to look like a photograph you can just use a camera. I like looking at drawings that aren’t necessarily photographic – they can be cartoony, or full of energetic gestures or just a bit of a mess but tell you how the artist feels about their subject, as much as what it objectively looks like. I still thought I couldn’t draw but I got less scared about trying to. I found the process was much more interesting and exciting than the final product. It can be quite meditative – or scribbly and stress relieving. Drawing something makes you look at it differently – particularly when you’re drawing people.
Eventually I got up the courage to go to some Life Drawing classes. At first I was terrified that the models would be insulted by how bad my representations of them were! Even though it’s an entirely non-sexual context, and you get over any embarrassment and giggles surprisingly quickly, it’s an unusually intimate experience to look at someone’s body in such a focused way. That makes drawing people very different from drawing flowers or vegetables or anything else. It forces you to really concentrate on the marks you are making on the paper to try and give an impression of that particular person – not just how you think a generic human should look
The professional models at college did seem pretty similar though – usually young and thin, often quite athletic, always cisgendered and with no obvious disabilities. There was some ethnic diversity. But otherwise the range of people I was getting a chance to draw didn’t seem to reflect the diversity of shapes and sizes and ages and presentations of people in my life. And certainly not of the wonderful mix of people in the Bi community. Talking about that with Camel, and about how rare it is to get a chance to just look at people in a non-sexual, non-confrontational way, we came up with the idea of a Bisexual Life Drawing workshop
We knew we’d need to work hard to make participants feel safe. Everyone gets so many negative messages about their bodies and usually a load more about their artistic abilities. We were a bit worried that, even though friends said it was a good idea, no one would actually dare come along. And we really didn’t want it to turn into a space were someone was perving on anyone else and only paying attention to the pretty people … or the visibly different people. But it was a space we wanted for ourselves so we decided to try and make it happen. I felt a bit weird about offering to do an art workshop when I “can’t draw” but hoped that would encourage other people who are sure they can’t draw either to come and have a go.
We came up with two basic rules: everyone must model but they can be as naked or as clothed as they like and everyone must draw but they don’t have to show their work unless they want to. We ran the first workshop at last year’s BiCon – it turned out to be a really interesting, creative space with a range of different shapes and sizes of body (even though being first thing on the Sunday morning we didn’t get a huge amount of people). And I ran it again as Brighton BothWays’ Winter Pride event this February. I find it much scarier to do outside of the fluffy safe-space of a BiCon but the magic of a group of people doing something creative happened again – I knew it was working when we had time for everyone to model twice and more than one person felt safe enough to get a little bit more naked the second time round!
I worried a lot about the logistics – making sure that the room was warn enough and private enough and there was somewhere comfortable and cosy for modelling people to sit or lay down. Did we have enough pencils? And what would we do if there was a fire alarm? At the BiCon workshop most people kept their socks on because the floor was a bit draughty. And at the Brighton one it was only after we’d started that I realised that without a co-facilitator I’d need to ask someone else to keep an eye on the time while I was modelling! It seemed only fair that as the facilitator I model first (I got naked apart from my socks at one workshop and was a little more clothed for the other – because of how I was feeling in, and about, my body at the time – workshop facilitators are people too!).
I ended up feeling really privileged to have the chance to look at and draw some of the amazing and beautiful variety of bodies in our community – and to feel safe being looked at. I was surprised how quickly I stopped feeling particularly conscious about being (almost) naked. I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable with people staring at me – but this felt like we were doing something creative together even though I was “just” standing there while the others drew. Somehow my body was the centre of attention – and not a big deal at the same time. When you’re drawing a body ends up being just as normal and mundane and just as amazing as a pebble or tree or a flower.